By Norm Wood
November 28, 2009
Secure it, run in the direction of his blockers, find a seam and get to midfield. In Roberts' opinion, there's no reason he shouldn't be able to cut the field in half every time he touches the ball on a kickoff.
If that sounds like a lofty ambition, it probably is — especially for a guy who had a much more humble athletic goal just three years ago.
That's what Roberts hadn't been able to do in a footrace as late as his junior year at Smithfield High, when his dad, Joe, was 40 years old.
"I used to race him all the time, and he'd get me by a few steps every single time," said Roberts, who will lead No. 14 Virginia Tech today at Virginia (3-8 overall, 2-5 ACC). "I knew if I could beat my dad, that'd be something, because he's the toughest guy I've ever tried to beat. It was crazy."
He did finally catch his dad, and Roberts is catching on elsewhere these days, too. As a kickoff returner and wide receiver for Tech (8-3, 5-2), he's showing that speed along with polished skills can be a dangerous combo.
"He could always run," Joe said. "He was always the kind of kid that if he got a step on you, you weren't going to catch him. I just always stayed in great shape from being in the military, so I could stay a couple steps ahead of him. Once he caught me, I never beat him in a race again, so I said, 'OK, I'm done.' I never raced him again."
For much of the first half of this season, you'd have been hard-pressed to find a more productive kickoff returner anywhere in the nation. He opened the season with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in Tech's loss to Alabama, and went on to the lead the nation in average yards per return.
That was before teams stopped kicking to him. Before he had two returns for 49 yards last Saturday against North Carolina State, he'd had only one return in Tech's previous three games, and three returns in the previous five games.
Despite averaging 36.5 yards per return, which would currently put him second in the nation, he no longer qualifies on the national list in the category because he hasn't had enough returns. He has 13 returns this season and needs at least two today to get back in the national rankings.
"It's frustrating, but I understand it," said Roberts, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound sophomore. "There's nothing I can do about it until they start kicking to me again."
The natural approach Roberts seems to take toward kickoff returns is because of, in part, his high school experience. At Smithfield, the idea was to get the ball in Roberts' hands as often as possible.
In his senior season, he played running back and gained 2,236 rushing yards. He scored 38 touchdowns, including five on special teams, and averaged 40 yards per kickoff return and 37 yards per punt return.
When he got to Tech, he had to make the challenging transition to receiver. After assuming the kickoff-return role midway through his freshman season, he was back in his element to a certain degree.
"Back there, Dyrell is a quarterback, because he has to make a call to the other returner or he has to talk to the guys in front of him about whether he's going to take it or not," said Kevin Sherman, Tech's wide-receivers coach and kickoff-return specialists coach. "He's got to know where we're trying to attack. ... You've got to see the guys in front of you, and you've got to trust your speed. If you see a crease, you've got to hit it."
While Roberts latched on to those concepts, grasping the nuances of playing receiver was a different story. Sherman said he had to start from scratch with Roberts.
"I was lost out there," Roberts said of playing receiver in his freshman season, when he had 17 catches for 227 yards. "I didn't know where I was going or what I was supposed to be doing."
Roberts' approach to receiver even looked cumbersome to his receiver teammates, all of whom had much more experience in high school at the position. Even Roberts' stance at the line of scrimmage looked funny.
"When we watch film of last year, we saw his stance was a little bit high, so (defensive backs could) get into his body a little more," Tech sophomore receiver Jarrett Boykin said. "Coming in (to Tech), reading defenses was kind of hard for us. Last year, that was kind of new."
With so much to absorb at his new position, Roberts focused on taking as many reps in practice from quarterback Tyrod Taylor as possible. Taylor threw Roberts passes that made him test what he'd learned — working to the outside and inside of the field, getting off blocks from cornerbacks and making catches with little time to adjust, catching balls in traffic.
Now, Roberts is looking more the part, and he's producing. Despite a difficult outing against N.C. State in which he dropped a couple of passes, he's still third on the team with 19 catches for 315 yards and three touchdowns.
His receiving highlight — and perhaps the highlight of Tech's season — came in a 16-15 victory against Nebraska when he stayed in front of a defender long enough in the end zone to catch an 11-yard touchdown pass from Taylor with 21 seconds left to cap the Hokies' unlikely final-minute drive.
The confidence that Roberts has always shown on kickoff returns is now on display at receiver. That's making him a target for opposing defenses, and for his quarterback.
"He feels that he can beat any defender that steps in front of him," said Taylor, a Hampton High graduate. "I know he can go out there and make a play, so I give him a chance to."